Starbucks reveals why brands should lead with values

Research suggests consumers want organizations to take a stand, but a high-profile position can turn your brand into a lightning rod. Is the risk worth it?

Starbucks must have felt a sinking sense of déjà vu as news outlets picked up the recent incident in Tempe, Arizona, where employees asked police officers to leave.

It was a little over a year ago when the coffee chain found itself embroiled in controversy when some African American customers were treated rudely, eventually having the police called to remove them from a store in Philadelphia. That incident led the chain to close over 8,000 locations for racial-sensitivity training and sparked a wider discussion about racial bias in America.

Why do these stories seem to dog Starbucks?

Whether it’s their Christmas cups receiving criticism for not amply embracing Christian tradition or individual stores failing to provide a safe space for all its patrons, the company is often in the spotlight—and that was before former chairman and CEO Howard Schultz began running for president.

Starbucks reveals the perilous nature of occupying public space in America in 2019.

The nation—according to pundits and polling data—is more divided than ever. Companies that receive kudos for campaigns that call out sexual harassment and call on men to treat women with more respect can expect backlash online. An attempt to be more inclusive around the holidays gets attacked 24/7 on Fox News.

The biggest takeaway for anyone following the news cycle these days must be that you can’t please everybody.

A little more than a year after police were an integral part of a huge controversy for Starbucks, the mirror image of the incident is causing more outrage. This time, Starbucks’ leadership has been prepared.

Reuters reported:

In an apology here addressed to the Tempe Police Department and posted on its website, Starbucks said the treatment of the officers was “completely unacceptable.”

“On behalf of Starbucks, I want to sincerely apologize to you all for the experience that six of your officers had in our store on July 4,” Rossann Williams, the coffee chain’s executive vice president, wrote.

“What occurred in our store on July 4 is never the experience your officers or any customer should have, and at Starbucks, we are already taking the necessary steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again in the future.”

Starbucks aggressively worked with the police union to create forward-looking solutions to address the complex relationship between officers and the people they serve.

AZ Central wrote:

In turn, the officers involved were given the opportunity to express in person their concerns over what happened,” Rob Ferraro, the police union’s president, said in the written statement. “They came away from the meeting feeling heard and respected.”

Ferraro added that the union hopes the incident will reaffirm the connection between officers and the community. They hope to continue their partnership with the coffee company through initiatives like “Coffee With A Cop.”

The efforts to the defuse the situation seem to have been successful.

The Takeout wrote:

The police got their sit-down with Starbucks yesterday, as the six officers met with Starbucks management and police Chief Sylvia Moir, per ABC 15. Apparently, it was all friendly and polite and reasonable: The Tempe Officers Association president said the police “came away from the meeting feeling heard and respected.” But for good measure, Starbucks apologized further, issuing a statement on its website saying in part: “At Starbucks, we have deep appreciation for your department and the officers who serve the Tempe community.” The apology might sound familiar to those who remember the May 2018 firestorm over two black men who were asked to leave a Philadelphia Starbucks.

But in summation, to catch us up on this month’s someone-asked-to-leave-a-Starbucks headlines, all parties involved are calmly discussing an incident in which no one was slapped, spit on, or injured. Feelings have been heard. Olive branches have been offered. It’s unclear whether there was a group hug.

Have a plan

New research suggests that most organizations aren’t prepared for political discourse or rancor in the workplace. A survey from Clutch found that many organizations either don’t have a policy for political speech at work or haven’t clearly communicated that policy to employees.

It wrote:

Most companies don’t have a political expression policy, which can make them legally vulnerable. Forty-one percent (41%) of employees say their company does not have a political expression policy compared to 36% of employees who say their company has a policy. A significant number of employees (23%) do not know if their company has a policy.

This lack of planning can leave organizations vulnerable, especially as employees have shown they are more comfortable speaking out at work. Recent examples of employee-led advocacy include the Wayfair walkout and #GoogleWalkout.

 Taking proactive steps

Starbucks has showed that an aggressive communications plan is the only way to avoid extended controversy in today’s media landscape. Social media kerfuffles are inevitable, especially since the current algorithms prioritize outrage and criticism. However, an organization can quickly defuse the situation and wait for social media’s Sauron-like eye to move on with a strong response and building a strong brand reputation.

That means your organization has to get used to speaking up. Starbucks has had years of practice responding to polarized criticism of its brand.

However, that doesn’t mean you should jump into every hot topic out there. Studies suggest there is still a big segment of consumers who don’t want their favorite brands to become politicized. Frank Strong at Sword and the Script found that older consumers, age 60+, want brand managers to abstain from weighing in on politics.

So, what should you speak out on?

Lead with values

Brand managers and PR pros should be actively searching for ways to express their brand values to consumers—through content, marketing stunts, activism and customer interaction. These values can be simple, such as caring about the environment or providing access to all kinds of consumers, regardless of background.

Organizations that have been successful in expressing these values have garnered good PR on social media and in traditional outlets.  Think about Patagonia’s campaign to save protected national park land. More controversial efforts have included Dick’s Sporting Goods stand on guns, Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad and Gillette’s campaigns regarding inclusion.

What all these companies have in common is a cadre of leaders ready to stick to their principles and take the heat. They are also ready to lose some customers for what they believe in.

That’s the true mark of a brand value: what a company is willing to risk. If you are deciding what your company should stand for based on how much money you will make for your bold opinions, those aren’t values.

That’s just more marketing blather, and consumers will see through the inauthenticity.

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